After two years of declining fortunes typified by slashed prices, cruise lines see better times ahead with rising bookings and prices but will the smallest of organisms, the Noro virus, scupper the nascent revival?
The cruise lines badly timed their expansion plans when laying down orders for new ships several years ago, which came on stream just when global credit markets imploded. The situation, however, could have been very much worse if it were not for the growing British love affair with cruises. The Passenger Shipping Association, for example, shows that more than 1.5 million people took a cruise last year, up 4% on 2008 and nearly 50% since 2005.
It is not hard to see why such growth occurred when recession hit other travel markets badly. Cruising is one of the most pleasant ways to spend a relaxing holiday, offering many new sites and entertainment more competitively priced than most land-based holidays. But what land based holidays do not normally have is the Noro virus, which sadly has reached epidemic levels on many cruise ships.
This vomiting virus has the power to cripple the cruise industry and even, on occasions, endanger the running of the ships if sufficient crew members go down with the bug at the same time. On more than one occasion cruises have been cut short for just such safety reasons. The reason for the concern is that many passengers struck down by the virus have said they would not cruise again. This is an understandable reaction because the bug can ruin a cruise. Although the vomiting only lasts for 1-2 days, passengers are normally ordered to remain in their cabins for another 3 days until they have been given the all clear by the ships' doctors. Being mewed up in a small cabin for 5 days is like serving a costly prison sentence.
So far it seems that the media and cruise lines have tended to blame infected passengers for bringing the virus on board. This may be so on some occasions but there is far more to it than that. According to the US Food and Drug Administration, person to person transmission of the Noro virus has been well documented but the virus is transmitted by the fecal-oral route by contaminated water and food. Water, says the FDA, is one of the most likely causes of the virus and that must include water stored on cruise ships. This raises concerns about where potable water is taken on board and why, it seems, there is never a mention of whether the water was tested and what the results of those tests were.
Food supplies can also sicken passengers. The FDA reports that shellfish and salad ingredients are foods most often implicated in Noro virus. This suggests that increased cleaning everywhere on infected ships and frequent hand washing with spirit lotions will have little effect. This writer's own experiences bear that out. On taking a 24-day cruise last November on board Fred Olsen's Balmoral, I had been warned that there might be departure delays caused by sanitizing the ship owing to a serious outbreak on the preceding cruise. Such cleaning, however, did not stop the almost immediate outbreak of the virus on my cruise which lasted almost the whole voyage. The Celebrity's Mercury cruise ship may be another case in point. On two of its most recent cruises alone around 600 passengers fell ill but does that seriously suggest 600 people simply failed to wash their hands?
Cruise lines must clearly do more than sanitizing if they do not wish to see their fortunes impaired by class law suits and a waning interest in cruise ships turned plague ships. One travel law specialist, Irwin Mitchell, already has over 80 angry customers of Fred Olsen Cruise Lines following 5 separate outbreaks over the last few months on Boudicca.
The Centre for Diseases Control reports numerous outbreaks of Noro virus on cruise ships operated by Celebrity Cruises, Cunard, Holland-Amerika Lines and Royal Caribbean. If left unchecked there will be an avalanche of claims against the lines. Now is not the time to imperil the recently launched, costly cruise ships like P&O's Azura and Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas (225,000 tonnes) simply because health and safety issues remain sloppy or inadequate.
This writer has viewed many cruise ships in ports and all failed to have all their rat baffles (guards) in place. Such baffles may no longer be a legal requirement, except where there is a serious rat infestation or plague but their lack of use is symptomatic of the sloppy procedures undermining passenger health and safety.